The story of wearable technology is a surprisingly long one and has always been an exciting fusion of art and science, form and function, that has improved the lives of people for centuries in a number of ways. It is a term that has recently become associated with modern devices like smartwatches, smart glasses and VR technology, but just about anything that humans can wear to enhance their understanding of themselves and their environment counts.
In the following article, we will see how we got to where we are today, and what can the story up till now tell us about the future?
In the beginning
One of the clearest examples of the form vs function trend is also an invention that is very much still with us: the watch. Watches have existed in many iterations over the years and have been driven forwards by a combination of fashion and utility. Advances in clockwork mechanisms and automata in the Middle East and Europe had started to be utilised in commerce by the late 14th century. These advances allowed churches and municipalities to install clocks that merchants could use to arrange meetings, manage logistics, meet ships and govern opening hours. This was an advance that German inventor Peter Henlein wanted to spread still further by miniaturising a clockwork mechanism into something that people could carry with them, creating the ‘Nuremberg Egg’ which was a clock worn around the neck like a necklace. Although this advance might appear very limited to us, it proved the potential of wearable machines that could augment our understanding of the world and give us greater capability to do our everyday jobs better and more efficiently.
As ever, where function goes, form quickly follows, and the Egg’s association with wealthy merchants and high society made it a fashion accessory – and increasingly precious and elaborate Eggs were created to satisfy the public’s craze for the technology. These Eggs became too heavy to wear around the neck practically, and so smaller versions were created that were thin enough to fit into the pocket of a waistcoat. As military technology advanced, and combined arms involving the precise movement of men, artillery and cavalry came to the fore, these pocket watches became invaluable to commanders. These military leaders planned everything from when to make attacks to when to stop firing their field guns using timepieces synchronised with their fellow officers.
Here, again fashion followed function, and the pocket watch’s association with dashing cavalry officers made them very fashionable among the middle classes, where many required easy-to-use timepieces that could help with other functions. Thus, the wristwatch was born. It could be used while carrying out manual jobs, and also incorporated other technologies beyond time telling, from temperature gauges to altimeters and spirit levels, fitting perfectly into the brave new world of trade and industry that was emerging at the dawn of the 20th century. While this was a significant advance in timekeeping, it was just the start of the journey for wearables.